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Winning Time’s Michael Chiklis Grew Up With the Gospel of Red Auerbach

Photo: Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images

Michael Chiklis has never known a world without Red Auerbach. His father “preached the gospel” of the legendary Boston Celtics head coach, whom the actor plays in the HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. Though Chiklis was a toddler when Auerbach retired from coaching to serve as president of the team, The Shield alum remembers his presence in the stands at TD Garden, “chomping on a cigar.” The actor landed the role after working with executive producer Adam McKay on Don’t Look Up and made his entrance in the series while seated, kinglike, behind a smoky table in Sunday’s episode, “Is That All There Is?” Chiklis brings Auerbach’s aura of earned superiority to several scenes in the episode, a reminder for Winning Time viewers that, as optimistic and scrappy as Lakers owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) seems, he’s facing an NBA Establishment that doesn’t want him, trust him, or expect him to last. In the episode’s final moments, Auerbach dresses down Buss at center court at the Forum, foreshadowing the Lakers-Celtics rivalry that would come to define the sport in the ’80s.

Here’s Chiklis on turning Red, witnessing that legendary feud in real time, and the challenges of putting together a roster of Celtics all-stars.

What surprised you in your research for the role? 
Bill Russell’s book Red & Me gave me a lot of insight into why Auerbach was so successful. It was because of how progressive and forward thinking he was and what a brilliant collaborator he was. He gave his players a feeling of agency and belonging that other, more dictatorial coaches did not.

Red Auerbach really represented the standard orthodoxy of basketball, if you will. He came from basketball, played basketball, coached basketball at the college level, and worked his way up. He was very East Coast. Then comes this interloper, this upstart Jerry Buss. He’s a wealthy businessman late in his life who happens to love basketball. He sees an opportunity from a business standpoint to bring up the entertainment value in arena sports.

It sets the pick for the rivalry from the top down. These guys shared a love for their teams, a love for the sport, and an intensely competitive nature. Everything else was very different. It really changed not just the NBA but all arena sports in the way they were packaged and marketed.

I went to Boston University from ’81 to ’85, so I bore witness to the rivalry exploding between the Lakers and the Celtics. I loved the intensity. I didn’t have any idea how really earth-shattering an effect it was having on sport across the board. Now I’ve been living in Los Angeles for 30 years, and I’m still into all things Boston sports. There’s no way I could ever say “Go Lakers!” in earnest. It just couldn’t happen. My daughters grew up here. They want to be Lakers fans, and it’s a problem.

If your dad watched your performance as Red, what notes do you think he’d have? 
I wish my dad was around to see it. He used to say, “That guy’s a winner. He knows how to talk to his guys. The difference between a team that is somewhat successful and a championship team is the way they work together.”

He understood that Red created an atmosphere for these guys to be successful. They liked working together. That’s why their focus was so seamless. When you watch the Celtics reels, especially from Bill Russell’s teams on, with Bob Cousy and John Havlicek, the way they work together and move the ball around is poetry. It’s like a dance. It requires incredible athleticism and intelligence.

By the way, Red Auerbach was a really well-educated guy. He studied down in Washington and then he ended up at Columbia. He looks like Joe Palooka and chews on a cigar, but he was a deeply intelligent man, particularly on a philosophical and human level. He understood people and what motivated them.

Instead of focusing his brain on banking, say, he chose to focus it on basketball.
He was a great mix of book intelligence and street smarts. I think he was a bit of a mathematical genius. He saw patterns and understood the physics of the game. He’d often talk about where rebounds were likely to come down based on probability.

All great coaches do that. I remember playing hockey as a kid and my coach told us, “If you’re streaking on the right wing, try to shoot low into the right side because it’s much more likely to create a rebound out to the left wing. Ninety percent or more of your goals are scored on a rebound.” Great coaches understand the game from myriad levels.

You obviously love Red, but in Winning Time, he’s a foil. He’s the mountain Jerry needs to climb, the lion he needs to tame.  
I knew I was being cast in the role of one of the principal antagonists, and that’s fine. I’m sure Red would have loved that. If you’re going to tell a story from the Laker standpoint, no one’s gonna be hated more than Red Auerbach and Larry Bird and the boys from that Celtics team.

Everything I’ve researched and looked into says that Red Auerbach was universally loved and respected and admired by his players, the administrations he worked with, and the fans in the Boston area. Conversely, if you played against Red Auerbach, you fucking hated him. He was a gamesman, so he was there to beat you and would do everything he could to make that happen.

I hope that down the line, as this rivalry heats up on the show — and I believe it will, because these guys are very smart showrunners — they will get into the three-dimensionality of Red Auerbach and acknowledge that he wasn’t just an antagonizing villain. The show is never going to be about the Boston perspective, but he was a real guy, and there are reasons why he was so damn successful.

What do you think Red is doing with Jerry in the show? Does he really think that he’s better than him or is it just intimidation?
All the above. Think about where Auerbach comes from. He played basketball from childhood, then he played college ball. He is an East Coast guy, married with children, has a work ethic. Here comes Jerry Buss, this guy with his buttons undone down to his navel in leisure suits — I’ve got the keys to the Playboy Mansion! Red must have been like, “Who the fuck is this guy?” That’s why Red has the line, “It was never fucking leprechaun.” What he means by that is he’s not egotistical. All his success was the result of painstaking work by a bunch of people who were committed to his view. “You can’t just be a herky-jerky guy who walks in here and thinks you can throw some money down and win it all.”

Two things happened. First, he underestimated the competitive nature of Jerry Buss and who he was at his core. He judged the book by its cover. He also probably lit a fire under Jerry Buss’s ass because Jerry was like, “You dismissed me, so I’m going to beat your ass now.”

The only other rivalry I’ve ever seen like it is the Yankees–Red Sox, and similarly, it’s a top-down rivalry. The owners can’t stand each other and neither can the bat boys. By the way, rivalry is supposed to be built on respect. I have always believed that if you don’t respect your rivals, you’re a fool. If you can’t look at Magic Johnson and tip the hat as a Boston Celtics fan, then you’re just an ass. You’re really not a fan of the sport. One of the great compliments of my life was that when Jeter retired, they asked me to do the voice-over for his retrospective. They felt it should be a Red Sox fan because his life and his career transcended the rivalry. I couldn’t agree more.

Red smoked a lot of cigars. Did you use the cigar as a prop or as a tool to build the character? 
Can you imagine in this day and age someone at the end of the bench, when they feel that the game is over, lighting up a stogie? What a statement and an absolute fuck you to the other team. This is where gamesmanship comes in. Apparently, it was not beneath Red Auerbach to do certain things that were not illegal but would certainly make the other team and especially someone who’s volatile like Jerry West come close to having an aneurysm. He knew how to push buttons.

There’s a psychological aspect to sport, and if you’re going to be a champion, it’s not enough to just be a natural. You have to engage in a little bit of gamesmanship. You shouldn’t take it into cheating and things that are distinctly unethical and wrong, but you can certainly try to get into another guy’s head. Question the wisdom of the suit that he wore into the stadium that night.

Last question: You’re putting together an all-time Celtics all-star team. Who are your five guys?
Holy shit. I think you’ve got to have Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. You’ve got to have the Twin Towers there. I don’t think there was anybody with a work ethic like Larry Bird ever. Wait! I’m gonna replace Parish with Bill Russell and I’m definitely going to put in Larry … but, my God, you’ve got to put in Parish. Do I have to just do five?

You can have a couple guys on your bench.
Well, then there are the usual suspects. You’ve got to talk about Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. You’ve got to talk about the quiet killer Danny Ainge hitting from outside. Now we’re over again. Shit.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Michael Chiklis Grew Up With the Gospel of Red Auerbach